What Is Math: A Brief History of Mathematics
Mathematics is probably one of the most important skills a student will learn. However, many will argue on practical significance of calculus in everyday life. Of course it is there but chances are you don’t compute the trajectories before you toss crumpled paper into the wastebasket. But if you do, perhaps you have a good reason – or you need some help. What is mathematics for you? Regardless of how you see it, knowledge about math is essential.
But have you ever thought of who started your grueling experience in your trigonometry class? No, don’t blame your teacher or your parents! The history of mathematics offer surprising information.
Swaziland, home of the oldest mathematical artifact
The Ishongo Bone was discovered by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt in 1960. Learn more about the Ishongo Bone here.
Predating the Greeks
First of all what is mathematics? Practically math is numbers, forms and relationships among these. Surely there’s a better definition. Names such as Pythagoras, Euclid, Thales used to send tingling feelings all over my body. They are without question synonymous with the study of math. However, for many, they are just hard-to-pronounce names discussed in class. Moreover, the roots of math go beyond these men! In fact, the concept of counting dates farther back. It’s so far back that it requires a considerable amount of digging to unearth the artifacts related to math.
A good example is the Lebombo bone found in Swaziland. Scientists estimate that this artifact is approximately 35,000 years old. The artifact had 29 notches etched on a baboon bone. The bone is believed to be a calendar stick much like what Bushmen from Namibia use today. So for the record, this is the oldest mathematical object found. If you think Plato is old, this is older!
Another artifact worthy of mention is the Ishango bone found along the borders of Uganda and Zaire close to the Nile River. This artifact is said to be 20,000 years old. What’s curious about the bone is that it included a quartz stone used to make marking on the bone. So clearly it was a tool that the early man used. When the artifact was discovered in the 1960s it had groups of notches. Some speculate that the bone is the earliest list of prime numbers. Others think that it is a lunar calendar of some sort.
With these basic mathematical tools, early humans were able to go about their daily lives. If you ask what is math for them, it is simply a part of their daily lives.
Now let’s fast forward several thousands of years to the time of the Sumerians. They are believed to have developed a system of measurement around 3,000 to 2,500 years BC. Moreover, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets. Now that’s your ancient flashcards! The Sumerians were known to have documented their math religiously. They had tablets covering math topic like fractions, algebra, quadratic equations, and solutions to linear and quadratic equation to name a few. Suffice to say, the Sumerians regarded their study of math with pride.
How to read the artifact
At first glance, the tablet may seem to be gibberish. But you can easily learn how to read what on the artifact. Here's a quick guide.
Ancient Mathematical Texts
Man became really serious about mathematics when they started writing about it. The Plimpton 322 is a significant ancient mathematical artifact. It is considered as the oldest mathematical text dating back to 1,900 BC. The tablet shows Pythagorean triples (of course it may have been called something else that time).
The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus is a mathematical text found in Egypt in 1858. This ancient artifact is divided into several books. One book includes arithmetic and algebraic problems. On the other hand, the second book includes geometry problems. The last book contains multiplication of fractions. How it was used can only be speculated. But scholars think that it’s used to teach the principles of mathematics.
By documenting the study of math, ancient civilizations passed on their knowledge to the next generation. That includes all those students currently struggling in their math classes today. Yes, this also includes their offspring and their whole lineage.
What remains of the Platonic Acedemy
The history of mathematics is not complete without Greeks. Greek math refers to the mathematical texts written in the Greek language. This started around 600 BC during the time of Thales of Miletus and ended in 529 AD with the closing of the Academy of Athens.
The Greeks revolutionized the study of mathematics by introducing the deductive method in their study of math. The best example here is the Pythagorean Theorem. The proof of the theorem was the first to use deductive method and logical reasoning.
Although many students are more familiar with Pythagoras, there is another significant figure in Greek math. Thales of Miletus is regarded as the first true mathematician. He is the first person to use deductive reasoning in mathematics. Moreover, he was able to derive the 4 corollaries in his theorem. Thus, he is the first person attributed with a mathematical discovery. Furthermore, he applied his knowledge in computing heights of structures, distances of ships from the shore and a host of other applications.
On the other hand, Plato became an icon in the world of mathematics. Through his Platonic Academy he helped spread mathematical knowledge. Since his academy was the center of math during the 4thcentury BC, great mathematical thinkers emerged from his school. Names like Eudoxus, and Aristotle hailed from this institution.
The extent of Greek contribution to math is wide and deep. Concepts like mathematical rigor, axiomatic method, number theory, algebra, solid geometry, conic sections, spherical geometry, optics and a host of others came to being because of the Greeks. If you think studying these concepts is hard, just imagine the effort to start from nothing. Greek mathematicians set the standards of how math should be studied.
The Medieval Math
During the medieval times, the exploration of math took on a different turn. Math was used on a biblical plane. At this time, scholars believed that math was the solution to unlocking nature and the divinity of God. You can say that math was used to justify and find the proof of religion. At this time, mathematicians looked to the heavens.
Scholars travelled around the world to discover new concepts and incorporate it in what they already know. One significant contribution during this time was the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic System.
During the 14th century, scholars explored concepts like speed, acceleration, arithmetic and geometric progression, and others. Application of previous concepts and creation of new ones paved the way to new mathematical studies.
Merging Math and Physics
It was during the 17thcentury that math shined brightly. In the hands of people like Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Descarte and Newton, math became a pivotal component of discovery. Math was now used as an indispensable tool in science.
The scientific revolution of the 17th century paved the way to the discovery of the laws of physics, development of calculus, probability theories, graph theory, celestial mechanics, statistics and standardizing mathematics among others.
The 17th century mathematics brought about an explosion of ideas, application of concepts, and creation of new areas of studies. It is definitely difficult to contemplate what is math today without the scientific revolution.
Einstein's Mass-Energy Equation
Learning about mathematics usually entails understanding the history of mathematics. Of course focus is on the concepts and not really on social and historical background. But we all get the taste of how the simple morphed in to more complex ideas. As students and teachers discuss the development of math from simple counting to higher, more complex and abstract math, they get to relive the history of mathematics right in their classrooms.
Likewise, how to study math has evolved from mere gatherings to a formal seat in the classroom. We are subjected to more complex mathematics now. However, we are given numerous tools just to comprehend the basics. With the aid of computers, we can now decipher the secrets hidden in equations. But with every discovery, new questions and mysteries confront us.
From the simple bone tools 35,000 years ago, students now have sophisticated tools to learn math. This makes learning non-Eucledian geometry, calculus, differential equations, hyperbolic geometry, elliptic geometry, topological spaces and other complex mathematics easier (OK this statement is debatable). In many college admission today, knowledge of math is a necessity. Moreover, these are not just your basic garden-variety mathematics, but statistical math and other brain crunching math concepts.
It’s humbling to know that we are no longer merely counting stars, but measuring them from great distances. We can now predict patterns in the universe that was once considered mysterious. Without question, math took on a quantum leap in man's recent history.
Theory of Relativity Made Easy
More than just mere theories, mathematics of the old have helped the modern man make sense of the universe. It is true that there is much to learn, and that is what the new generation endeavors to find.
It is in the history of mathematics that we can see that there is much to learn around us. What is mathematics for you? Is it merely a subject you have to pass? If you consider the history of mathematics, you will discover that it took approximately 35,000 years to get that abhorred subject into your class schedule. You have an assortment of tools to help you with math. On th other hand, the ancient man only had a bone to guide them.
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